BlueWalker 3 satellite launch planned for summer 2022
AST SpaceMobile Inc. this week announced that it has received an experimental license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to test its BlueWalker 3 satellite. And while it has company in this area, AST SpaceMobile said it’ll be the first space-based cellular broadband network compatible with standard smartphones.
AST SpaceMobile CEO and chairman Abel Avellan described BlueWalker 3 as a “693-square-foot phased array designed to communicate directly with unmodified mobile phones from low Earth orbit.” The FCC license grants AST SpaceMobile permission to test the satellite, though the FCC has not yet granted the company a commercial operating license as a carrier. AST said it will use the test opportunity for software and network core testing and optimization.
Assuming the test is successful, AST said it will be able to go online with as few as 20 satellites, which it hopes to have launched through 2023, with plans to operate full, global broadband coverage using 110. The license enables AST to perform space-to-ground testing with its BlueWalker 3 satellite in Texas and Hawaii, using 3GPP low-band cellular frequencies and Q/V-band frequencies, subject to restrictions.
BlueWalker 3 is now on track for a summer 2022 launch from Cape Canaveral. AST has reserved a spot on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch, said the company. AST’s plans to use SpaceX were already in motion following a previously announced delay — the company noted in 2021 investor communications that it was working out a deal following an unexpected delay.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine accelerated the company’s efforts to move to Elon Musk’s space business. Russian space agency Roscosmos announced in February plans to halt all Soyuz launches due to sanctions imposed by the European Union (EU). In March, AST SpaceMobile announced a multi-launch agreement with SpaceX to secure a framework for deploying BlueWalker 3 and the production BlueBird satellites to follow.
Assuming AST SpaceMobile’s tests with BlueWalker 3 go according to plan, ASTI will begin to AST build the considerably larger BlueBird satellites at manufacturing facilities in Texas. The company expects to manufacture up to six per month.
AST SpaceMobile is one of several companies working on non-terrestrial network (NTN) telecommunications solutions. NTN solutions include satellites operating in low Earth orbit (LEO), geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) and high altitude platforms (HAPS) such as balloons or drones.